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Thanne Longen Folk …

When Chaucer (left) wrote the Canterbury Tales in the 14th century, it was still largely ‘pre-first contact’ times. Spring meant similar things to people in England as the W̱SÁNEĆ people living on the islands in this part of the world. But the ways in which they were expressed, as in The Thirteen Moons of the W̱SÁNEĆ Year (right), were worlds apart! (Illustration at right from The Saanich Year by the late YELKÄTTE, Earl Claxton Sr. and STOLCEt, John Elliott.)

When the sap stirs in the trees, and a green sheen begins to colour over the brown thatch along the roadsides, “thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.”

Geoffrey Chaucer’s lines about rebirth in spring stir and cheer my sullen winter thoughts every year. Sure as the seasons. They are universal, singing of new life as it has happened for centuries.

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licóur
Of which vertú engendred is the flour;

1

Strange sounds

The language is strange but recognizable as English. It’s Middle English, spoken in medieval times after being stirred for generations in a mix of Old Norse and Norman French. Geoffrey Chaucer, the first great English poet, seized the new words and wove poetry and music into the change of seasons.

I use Chaucer’s words to describe the change of seasons here because they sing to me.

Through a different lens

The land I speak of, though, belongs to our forebears, the Coast Salish Peoples, particularly the W̱SÁNEĆ (Saanich) First Nation, who beheld the change of seasons through a different lens, had their own ways to describe them.

The two cultures/languages are worlds and ages apart, but I think there is a third language: that of the natural world. How ethno-European and North American aboriginal people describe Nature may be different in so many ways, but they are equally poetic. Equally compelling. 

Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales near the end of the 14th century — pre-first contact times, though small numbers of Norse explorers may have graced the shores of North America by Chaucer’s time.

Slepen al the nyght with open ye

Here is more from Chaucer’s General Prologue to the Tales:

Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye,

2

It is a universal description of spring if you overlook words like “Zephirus,” which means “the west wind,” and “the Ram,” an astrological reference to Aries or the months of March and April. The snow melts, the sun warms the earth; there’s a sweetness in the air. Dare we hope for softer days after the bitter cold of winter, the relentless rain? Let the fire die out? Toss the scarves and winter coats aside?

So priketh hem Natúre in hir corages,
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially, from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

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(To hear a compelling reading of these lines in authentic Middle English, watch this excerpt the 1970s film, The Last Waltz. The reading was performed during the last concert by The Band and read by the poet Michael McLure.)

The mink sniffs the air

The proof is all around us: The earth warms, the water rushes down our tiny island’s creeks and roadside ditches. I’ve been hearing the morning crescendo of birdsong and the evening chorus of frogs for days.

Jennifer lies in the sun on the chaise lounge, eyes closed, listening to the waves. The Canada Geese have returned. The Turkey Vultures circle high above the cliffs. A brown mink down on the rocks, sniffs the air, looks up at me and dives into the water.

Boundary Pass is lazy, benign, but there is no solace of warmth in those waters, not even in the height of summer!

The W̱SÁNEĆ view of spring (of all the seasons!) is equally musical, if not a little foreign to my “European” ear (we are Scots in this house).

Thirteen moons

On South Pender Island, by the front gate of the (deconsecrated) Church of the Good Shepherd, there is a poster of The Thirteen Moons of the W̱SÁNEĆ Year (see image above). It shows the “integration and flow of activities” the W̱SÁNEĆ people undertook over their year.

April (roughly speaking) is shown as the month of salmonberry, red rock crab and hummingbirds. It is also the month for red alders and the “moon of bullheads” (the fish).

The traditional W̱SÁNEĆ year, according to the illustration caption, did not differentiate between these seasonal markers.

All was sacred to us

“It was not our way to separate these activities when we lived a traditional life because all was sacred to us. Our art, language, spirituality and our everyday activities were all one. In our homes and in the privacy of our longhouses, we continue to observe the wisdom of the past.”

Well, this sings to me, too. Maybe a little more so than Chaucer’s lines, as this blessed island, S,DÁYES (Pender Island), is where I’ve had the good graces to live for the past ten years. Thank you to the W̱SÁNEĆ people!

Spring feels good this year, no matter which language you’re using.


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  1. When April with its sweet-smelling flowers
    has pierced the drought of March to the root,
    And bathed every vein (of the plants) in such liquid
    By which power the flower is created;

  2. When the west wind also, with its sweet breath,
    In every wood and field has breathed life into
    The tender new leaves, and the young sun
    Has run half its course in Aries,
    And small fowls make melody,
    Those that sleep all the night with open eyes

  3. (So Nature incites them in their hearts),
    Then folk long to go on pilgrimages,
    And professional pilgrims to seek foreign shores,
    To distant shrines, known in various lands;
    And specially from every shire’s end
    Of England to Canterbury they travel,
    To seek the holy blessed martyr,
    Who helped them when they were sick.

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